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Greek Foreign Policy | Calling things by their name

Tuesday, December 9, 2014  | 

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”

This quote came to mind while reading an article by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Hellenic Republic, Mr. Evangelos Venizelos, in the Sunday edition of Kathimerini (11/02).  In his piece, Mr. Venizelos tried to outline the strategic priorities of Greek foreign policy, with extensive references to the critical role of collegiality and pluralism. The article was written in a familiar, vague tone, without call for action or any specific strategies. It had nothing new to say.

Reading Mr. Venizelos’ piece brought the above quote to my mind, and should make one contemplate the cyclical relationship between mistakes and results. The use of the word “insanity” is, of course, metaphorical and not in a medical sense, but the question remains: Are Greek foreign policy makers so crazy as to repeat the same mistakes?

The above quote a favorite post of ‘Facebook philosophy’ and has been consistently attributed to Einstein. Since I have no confidence in our collective online wisdom, I looked up the actual source of the phrase. Not surprisingly, I located its origin in quite an unexpected – and deeply symbolic – text. The above definition of insanity has nothing to do with Einstein, but it is part of the introduction of a handbook of Narcotics Anonymous from the early 1980s: it is a definition for addiction.

So, is Greek foreign policy really doing the same thing over and over again – while expecting a different result?  While Mr. Venizelos extols the virtues of consensus, he presents no new strategy.  What is it that he wants consensus on?  Is it craziness or addiction that is guiding Greek foreign policy?

Greek foreign policy makers – whether they are insane or not – have the habit of approaching policy challenges, both domestic and international, in a very specific way – discord in our internal affairs and isolation and amateurism in our foreign affairs. So, Greeks are not crazy but they are addicted to a very specific way of dealing with issues.

Case in point: Mr. Venizelos refers to a “national strategic framework,” which in essence is nothing more than a series of failed arbitrary swings between partisan priorities ranging back several decades. This does not, in any way, constitute an effective strategy. Indeed, other countries that have been handling their national issues with professionalism and profound knowledge of the international arena, would characterize such a strategic framework as shortsighted amateurism.

The biggest problem with this mindset is its inextricable link with the introverted Greek identity. Greek introversion and the equation of participation in the international scene solely through the lens of “national issues” is a proven recipe for failure.

So, what should this elusive national strategy look like?

First of all, let’s take a look at how other countries are navigating the foreign policy field at large. An example of our chronic absence from the international scene – both as physical and thematic presences- is the latest Munich Security Conference, one of the top European events in the wider field of international politics.

The list of participants included the SG and officials of the UN, NATO and the EU, top officials from the US (like John Kerry), Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Israel, Norway, Sweden and even the active participation of leaders from Georgia, Slovenia, Albania, Serbia, FYROM, Singapore, Nigeria, and others. Even the Palestinians and the Syrian opposition had official representation.

Greece? No official presence at all, and the only presence whatsoever came in the form of one or two Greeks who were there due to their professional capacity as researchers for Greek, and mainly European institutes. During the latest NATO summit, I asked one the organizers of the above conference about the participation of Greece in the past.  His answer was honest, brief and heartbreaking. Greece is simply absent. This conclusion has been consistent in almost every similar discussion with members of the broader field of international relations on both sides of the Atlantic.

But what if there were some leaders of the Greek political scene in such a conference? Could they engage at an appropriate level? The rhetoric of the past, full of political vagueness, – which unfortunately still dominates the agenda of even the most prominent political elites – would have had minimal benefits, and could even do more harm than good.

An example of effective participation can be found in the official speech of the Estonian President – Toomas Hendrik IIves – during the Munich Security Conference. Hendrik IIves followed the President of the German Federation, Joachim Gauck, to the podium. I am sure that Estonia has various and very important national issues, but his excellent speech was titled “Rebooting Trust? Freedom vs Security in Cyberspace”. Does anyone recall the Greek President or even Minister of Foreign Affairs, giving such a thorough analysis on such a contemporary issue of common interest?  The heads of foreign missions are, however, informed about such pressing subjects and pursue an active participation in those discussions. This is a deliberate tactic that allows them to remain current, relevant, establish respect and develop relationships beyond the typical ceremonious practices. This is the ultimate way of developing political capital for their countries.

Slovakia managed to recently launch their own conference on security, which has become, in a very short time, one of the top European events. Unfortunately, Greece is, once again, absent. Countries such as Estonia, Slovakia and many others of similar size, have been able to engage and participate much more than one would ostensibly expect from their size – and this is not accidental.

What is the result of this meaningful exposure? The deep, substantial participation in the global dialogue creates credibility, transpires a sense of professionalism, develops solid relationships and above all, solidifies respect. These are the true elements of the concept of political capital in the 21st century, in stark contrast to the outdated Greek interventions on issues that have been long lost, due to chronic absence.

A brilliant exception to the above is the recent initiative of the Greek mission to the UN for the resolution on the protection of journalists in armed conflicts. This example demonstrates how Greek leadership should utilize the outstanding staff at its disposal. Unfortunately, such initiatives seem Sisyphean and clash with an outdated mentality. As the Greek saying goes, “one cuckoo bird does not bring the spring.”

The solution, as difficult as it may seem, is quite simple. We have to start punching above our weight. Or at least, let us start punching at our weight. Fortunately, we have the ability and an excellent workforce. The challenge is to stop coming up with excuses and start doing what needs to get done.
These are a few examples of what this could look like:

- Active participation in initiatives and events of broader interest. There should not be a single conference and event regarding European affairs, the North Atlantic Alliance and the UN, in which we do not have substantial presence. Substantial means doing extensive preparation for developing concrete, cutting edge proposals on issues such as cybersecurity, environment, the future of governance, big data etc. Aspects of national issues should be masked within the context of issues of greater concern and therefore create resonance.

- Implementation of a systematic mechanism for strategic initiatives and innovations in order to create partnerships and alliances on progressive issues.

The above example of the initiative of the Greek Mission to the UN for the protection of journalists is a great start, but we desperately need a plan for constant presence on issues of such caliber. The Greek ministry should select a couple of issues that they can make a real difference on and pursue them. This is the only way to make meaningful alliances that will benefit us in the future. However, this requires a significant upgrade and support of the diplomatic corps at all levels, starting from the lower ranks, which are called to produce most of the workload.

- Promotion of the participation of Greek personnel in international organizations at all levels, not only at the highest ranks, which are often part of personal and micropolitical agendas. The focus should be mainly on the lower and middle ranks, in order to develop a growing network of influence in the long run.

- Activation of the wider network of Hellenism. This is a tricky one, but let’s be honest: the number of part-time/volunteer leaders of the Greek American Omogenia are insufficient – to say the least. However, there are so many who are truly a massive asset for Hellenism. We finally need to figure out who is truly competent, discover and engage many others who are latent, and initiate a coordinated effort with the Greek Administration. They finally need to know with whom to speak to on the other side of the Atlantic.

- Collaborations with think tanks and NGOs abroad. Due to the corrupt relationship between Greek state and NGOs in the past, this acronym is now considered by the Greeks as the political equivalent of 666. However, there are exceptional NGOs that do phenomenal work and therefore have great influence all over the world. For this exact reason, the strategy of countries such as Norway, Turkey and many others, is to collaborate with such organizations, mainly in the US. The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs should establish a vigorous cooperation with think tanks like Brookings and the Atlantic Council, as well as humanitarian organizations. For the sake of full transparency, I am affiliated with the Atlantic Council.

- Support of Greek institutes, universities, Think Tanks and NGOs, in coordination with the respective Ministries. Such organizations should be the long professional and academic arm of the Greek foreign policy, with very strong presence in Europe and the US. These organizations should have continuous cooperation with e.g. the Hellenic studies departments, at least in key universities in Europe and the US. This, however, requires a new culture of transparency and merit in order to avoid the corrupt ghost-organizations of the past.
These are but examples of the extensive amount of work that needs to be done. All this work requires, of course, additional spending and many could argue that this is not the time to commit such resources. However, the problem is that the chronic discounts on an actual national strategy are what brought Greece to this point. If we really want to reestablish our image, we must invest in it. It is time to develop and apply our smart power. Given the influence of our history, we are uniquely positioned to do so and the benefits are multiple and long lasting. As mentioned by a Greek reader, Mr. Michalis P. Angelakis, in an online comment on the website of Kathimerini in response to Mr. Venizelos’ article: “Trust is not offered, but earned.” This applies both domestically and internationally. Success and influence are not technocratic issues and have nothing to do with international law, but are dependent on long-term and meaningful relationships and strategies.

The image and the future of Greece are heavily dependent on an enhanced sense of political capital that is persistently developed and appropriately used on national issues.

Unfortunately, influence is a political currency and Greece has been long broke. Let’s finally invest in the image of a young, active Greece that inspires and is not pitied. Let us finally break the stereotypes of interiority and absence and capitalize our historical and intellectual resources.

We need a tsunami of competence, in order to finally get over our addiction to what Admiral Radamanthys Fountoulakis HN (ret.) has aptly termed as “the dictatorship of mediocrity.”


Nikolas Katsimpras is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia University’s master program on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, a former Hellenic Navy Officer and the Greek delegate to the 2014 NATO Emerging Leaders program of the Atlantic Council.


twitter: @nkatsimpras


This a translation of an article first published in Greek by Kathimerini on 11/04.

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